Did We Kill Benoit?

On June 25, 2007, Chris Benoit was found dead with his wife Nancy and their son Daniel in their home in Fayetteville, Georgia. On February 12, 2008, the Fayette County Police Department closed their investigation, citing that Benoit strangled his wife and suffocated his son before hanging himself. The reasons for his actions haven’t been officially determined, but the most plausible theory (proposed by Chris Nowinski) involves chronic brain damage to all four lobes of his brain leading to depression and dementia. Interestingly, the original and most popular theory in the media — that Benoit used steroids and went into a so-called “roid rage” — was disproven when no artificial steroids were found in his system in the autopsy. Many other wrestling deaths have come to light over the years, but none have garnered as much controversy and attention to professional wrestling as Chris Benoit’s case. The media attention led to an overall examination of the impact of steroids and other drugs on the lives of professional wrestlers, regardless of the unlikeliness that they contributed to death of Benoit and his family specifically.

Whether it was brain damage acquired from repeated concussions gained by a signature move and a variety of head shots, or steroids and other damaging medical procedures to increase strength and change body shape, professional wrestlers have died for actions that directly or indirectly involve their performance in the ring and in the industry as a whole. Their desire to be a better or more popular wrestler lead them to take actions that dramatically increase their chances of an early death. As I mentioned in my first essay, many professional wrestlers don’t perform purely out of financial incentive, but rather because of their passion and respect for the business. But on a more fundamental level, many of them do it for the same reasons that musicians perform in concerts or actors perform on stage — for the reaction of the crowd, the thrill of public performance, the excitement of crowds of people chanting your name. And we, as fans, comprise that audience.

So, from a fan perspective, the question must be asked. Do fans push wrestlers too hard, leading them to their premature deaths? Is their blood in some way on our hands? In effect, did we kill Benoit?

There are two obvious answers to that question. Yes, we are responsible — if there were no professional wrestling fans, there would be no industry, which wouldn’t require these risky actions to be taken, which would lead to less deaths. No, we aren’t responsible — the talent make their own choices to put their lives on the line every night, and taking actions that put their lives at even greater risk ultimately stem from their own decisions. But both answers are simplistic and trite, and neither is completely accurate. The reality is that, on a fundamental level, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the wrestlers and the fans that twists in on itself, providing no easy starting point to examine. An amazing match brings us time and again to watch our favorite wrestlers perform or create new fans. An incredible crowd reaction energizes a wrestler and pushes him to keep delivering quality matches for as long as he’s able (and, perhaps, long after he’s no longer able). The moment of a perfect crowd and a perfect match transcends both; the result is much greater than the sum of its parts.

From there, attention naturally moves in the same direction it did with the media — to the promoters and federation owners. It’s easy to say that they are responsible for pushing the performers to take the head shots or consider using drugs, but that’s also too simplistic. Wrestlers often volunteer to do risky spots on their own initiative, and I’ve heard of a number of cases where a wrestler refused a particular spot in a match. Also, regardless of what you think about the effectiveness of the WWE’s Wellness Program, it is true that a number of wrestlers have been suspended and released due to violations of the program, even before Chris Benoit (for example, Eddie Guerrero is pretty open about his own termination over his drug use in his biography). WWE has also taken steps to reduce the extreme matches on their product, particularly on their ECW brand. Arguments can certainly be made that perhaps WWE and the other federations haven’t done enough to reduce career-ending spots and performer drug use, but it’s false to say that nothing has been done at all to discourage both in the industry. And yet fans continually respond well to risky spots and wrestlers of a particular build or physique.

The reality is an unfortunate Catch 22. Wrestlers are frequently paid by performance, so they have to limp their body along for one more match to get one more paycheck. They often use drugs to help them when they’re injured (Footnote: Alcohol is probably the most abused drug by wrestlers. Many wrestlers I’ve talked to admit to drinking after (or before) matches to help with pain management) . They also accept risky spots in order to get a particular match over. This gets the audience excited, which creates more fans, which helps to grow a federation. The federation wants to bring more attention and people to the events, so they can make more money — which, ideally, will make it back to the talent. If you get rid of one part of the equation, the rest falls apart.

Where does the blame ultimately lie? I don’t think any one group is completely to blame, but neither do I think that any one group is completely innocent, either. Wrestlers have to make decisions for themselves about what kinds of matches they will do, and what they’re willing to put their bodies through. Promoters have to decide what kind of product they want to produce, and what financial and cultural risks they’re willing to take for it. And fans have to decide what forms of wrestling they’ll support with their money. For example, I personally don’t like how devastating “ultra-violent” wrestling (such as what CZW promotes) can be, so I don’t support it when my money anymore. I buy the merchandise and photo opportunities of wrestlers that I want to see succeed, to give them a financial avenue in addition to their appearance fee. I try to spend my money — the one commodity that ties this equation together — to direct the industry in the ways I want it to go. My money is the first, last and only direct impact I have on professional wrestling, so I use it consciously.

As wrestlers make decisions that help to extend their careers and promoters decide to reduce dangerous spots and punish drug use, we as fans should think about how we support the industry with our money and our enthusiasm. It won’t bring any of the great talent we’ve lost over the years back, but maybe it will allow the wrestlers of today to live longer and healthier lives so that they can entertain us for years to come.

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